Oct. 10, 2011
By Jon Cooper
There’s nothing more fun for fans than watching a home run hitter at the plate, especially during batting practice.
The sound of the ball off his bat is different. It’s cleaner, crisper.
That’s followed by the sudden upward snapping of the neck trying to follow the arc of the ball as it takes off. Once you locate it, the thought of ‘How far can that ball travel?’ enters in. Then it’s time to start the process all over again.
In that regard, sophomore Daniel Palka may be the most fun player to watch on the current Georgia Tech roster.
The 19-year-old left-handed slugger (he turns 20 on Oct. 28), has shown remarkable power out of his 6-1, 218 frame and has put on quite a show during fall practice.
It’s not unlike the show he put on during the summer at the Cape Cod League and at the League’s All-Star Game Home Run Derby at Boston’s Fenway Park. (See Aug. 2 Sting Daily http://www.ramblinwreck.com/sports/m-basebl/spec-rel/080111aab.html).
“Fenway was unreal. That place was so fun,” said Palka. “There’s no comparison. That was definitely the coolest place.
“It’s only short in right field for probably like 10 feet and it goes straight out for like 380 feet. So it’s pretty deep to right,” he added. “Everybody thinks it’s kind of short, but it’s a long shot. It’s definitely a different set-up than anywhere else.”
Palka proved as a freshman that he’s different as a power hitter in the middle of the order.
Sure, he had all the signs of your prototypical slugger. In 63 games last season (60 starts), he led the Yellow Jackets and ranked fourth in the ACC with 12 homers — he was one of two players to reach double-figures (Matt Skole had 10) — led the team in slugging percentage (.556), tied for the team lead in total bases (129, with Jacob Esch), finished second in RBIs with 52 (Skole had 58), and in doubles (18, five behind Esch).
But Palka, who just missed hitting .300, finishing at .297, broke the traditional slugger’s mold by finishing second on the Jackets with three triples, only lead-off hitter Kyle Wren had more (7).
Heading into fall practice, Head Coach Danny Hall believes Palka will improve on the one thing that marked him as a slugger and a young hitter — his strikeouts, where Palka had a team-high 71).
“The biggest thing for me is strike-zone awareness and cutting down on his strikeouts,” said Hall. “I’ve seen him hit here in individual workouts and he’s a much-improved hitter. I think he learned a lot, certainly, last year and he took it to Cape Cod and worked on it. You don’t hit over .300 in the Cape Cod League (Palka was fifth in the league, hitting .327) unless you’re doing a lot of things right. He had a great summer and I’m excited to watch him play here this fall.”
A question surrounding Palka is where he will play.
Last season he played at first base and the outfield when not DHing. This season he may get a shot on the mound. Palka pitched some in high school, tinkered with it during last fall’s practices, and took the mound once in Cape Cod, where he allowed three runs (two earned) and three hits in the one inning — the ninth in Wareham’s 15-6 loss to Falmouth. He allowed two walks and struck out one.
“I was volunteered,” Palka recalled, with a laugh. “There was absolutely nobody left. Our team ran out of pitching. I was the only one left. I hadn’t thrown, probably since high school in a game. It was different. It felt good, though.”
Any use of Palka at pitcher by Tech will be by design.
“We pitched him a little bit last fall but we had enough left-handers in our bullpen where I didn’t have to pitch him last year,” said Hall. “Daniel Palka is going to have to throw some for us, Jake Davies will throw a lot more than this year than he did last year. If we’re thin in an area it’s in left-handed pitching. I’m hoping that a guy like Palka and a guy like Davies can step up and give Devin Stanton some help getting left-handers out.”
“I work on pitching with Coach Kinkelaar,” he said. “The option is there but it’s just a matter of what they need me to do the most.”
Whether it’s getting an out or hitting one out, Palka’s mission remains the same.
“We always have expectations to make it all the way,” he said. “That’s what our mind is on right now, making it to Omaha.”